“I invested Rs. 2 million (US$ 18,550) of my money after seeing him on TV. I basically believe what I see on the TV and so was misled.”
I read this remark, by a hapless woman victim of an investment scam, in a Sri Lankan newspaper report last week. It got me thinking: where is our media literacy?
Sakvithi Ranasinghe, a populist tutor of English turned millionaire businessman, had just fled the country after duping thousands of unsuspecting people to deposit their life’s savings in his investment firm. Media reports have variously placed the number of victims between 1,500 and 4,000 — and some estimates place the total worth of his loot to be a whopping Rs. Nine billion (over USD 83.5 million).
This local scam may seem insignificant in the current global context when established and well respected banks and financial houses are collapsing one after the other in capitalism’s biggest crisis in decades. But for the several thousand victims, the effects are devastating.
The woman quoted in the news report is not an isolated case. Too many people, it seems, were mesmerised into parting with their money due to a deviously persuasive media campaign. For several years, Sakvithi ran English teaching programmes on Sri Lanka’s national television and other channels. On the guise of teaching English (which he didn’t do very well), Sakvithi manufactured a larger than life image for himself. He also ran regular newspaper advertisements in the highest circulating weekend newspapers. Some were in full colour, occupying an entire broadsheet page. These too reinforced his image as a benevolent, enterprising young Sinhala businessman doing social good.
Not everyone, it seems, heeds the common sense advice, ‘Don’t believe everything you read/hear in the media’. Indeed, the Sakvithi scandal once again brings into sharp focus the media’s — especially television’s — perceived role as the great authenticator of our times.
I have just written an op ed essay for the citizen journalism website Groundviews, where I suggest that the mainstream media outlets that repeatedly sold airtime or newspaper space to this man must now share part of the blame for misleading the public. I also argue that besides timely regulatory action and proper law enforcement, we also need greater vigilance by the media, and higher levels of media literacy in everyone to safeguard society from this kind of media manipulation.
Here’s an extract:
“I find it more than a tad ironic that the same media outlets are now peddling the tales of woe of the thousands of men and women tricked by their former, big-time customer. Knowingly or otherwise, these media have amplified the mesmerising tune of this pied piper of Nugegoda who lulled thousands into parting with their money.
“Their journalists would no doubt protest innocence, reminding us of the divide between editorial and advertising operations. And they are right: media practitioners and editorial gatekeepers don’t have much (or any) control over what fills up the commercially sold advertising space. But how many of their readers or viewers can distinguish the difference?
“Most people experience media products as a whole, and lack even the basic media literacy to separate news, commentary and paid commercials. Besides, with the rise of ‘advertorials’ — product promotions neatly dressed up as editorial content — it’s becoming harder to discern which is which.